Is Gen Z The First Car-Free Generation? Not So Fast, Say Automakers

by Natalie Bettendorf
Also Featured on Morning Edition
12.07.17

Image courtesy of Maven

Sheryl Connelly has a crazy job. She’s in Detroit, in charge of looking into the future for Ford Motor Company. And they’re trying to predict how people my age–from Generation Z– will use cars.

“I have two Gen Zers at home,” said Connelly. “So my sixteen-year-old daughter is thrilled, actually. Her car is ready to go. As soon as she has her license, it’s in the driveway. And so she sits in her car and she listens to the radio and she loves her car.”

That’s definitely not me.

“I think it’s context,” said Connelly. “It depends on where you live.” A couple of decades ago, you would not have heard someone from Ford saying that owning a car is about context. Things are definitely changing. My dad is a car guy. He says he  started driving when he was 14. Somehow that was legal. But me–I’m 18 and I don’t want a car. I am from the San Francisco Bay Area. I take buses and trains. I bike, and when I need a car, I use Lyft. Ford’s Connelly says Gen Z is a game changer.

“They don’t really care about ownership. They don’t necessarily see that their vehicle is going to be a status symbol. In fact they’re really savvy customers and can be quite frugal,” said Connelly.

I asked Connelly if it scared Ford that Gen Zers are frugal. “No, I don’t think so at all. We’re ready for you. If you wanna buy a car, we’ve got it for you. If you don’t wanna buy a car, we can still help you there.”

Ford started its own bike sharing service recently. They want to sell to people like me who have no interest in buying a car. The top three automakers in the U.S.–Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and General Motors–say they are no longer just automakers. Every major car company is trying to make a move – whether it’s car-sharing or ride-hailing or self-driving. General Motors has a new car-sharing app that it’s betting billions on called Maven.

“The word means ‘a connoisseur,’ someone who has options and means to make good choices,’” said Peter Kosak, the executive director of urban mobility for Maven. “We needed to create a new brand because this is really about access and not necessarily ownership.”

Kosak says GM’s new car-sharing company was created to target those on the older end of millennials and Gen Z. While my friends and I aren’t really interested in car ownership, we are redefining what it means to travel by car.

Susan Shaheen researches innovative mobility at UC Berkeley.

Susan Shaheen is at UC Berkeley and has been studying ride sharing since the 90’s before it was a real thing. She says this isn’t all bad news for car companies.

“If you are using their mobility services,” said Shaheen, “chances are they’re gonna have a lot of data about your preferences — if you like to rent minivans or mini coopers or convertibles or Teslas. They’re gonna know a lot about where you travel and how you travel. They’re gonna be in a very good position to market to you.”

Even if you haven’t thought about owning a car, you are essentially being placed on the road to ownership. Whether you realize it or not, engaging in these car sharing services is essentially test driving, which is the first step in purchasing a car.

“This is a business opportunity for us,” said Maven’s Kosak. “You’re in that perfect case, and maybe later you will want to own a car.”

So the car industry is hoping that I may want a car in the future, even if it’s not a priority now. If this sounds familiar, think back on all the doom and gloom about millennials not wanting to own cars. 

Last year, the Associated Press reported that millennials are starting to buy cars in big numbers. They just had a late start–mostly because of the Great Recession.

Could the same thing happen for Gen Z? I decided to ask Michelle Krebs, an analyst for Autotrader, if Generation Z might follow in Millennials’ footsteps once they’re turning 30.

“We think that maybe, as Gen Z ages, as you start to think–I know this is hard to think about–but if you decide about getting married and having children you may have one personal vehicle in the household,” said Krebs.

She may be right, but thats not happening for me yet. I’ve always wanted to live in Los Angeles, and I recently got to move down here for college. Before I moved, when I told people that I wouldn’t have a car, they’d say, “Oh, good luck.” I didn’t need luck because I got here and there’s Lyft and Uber, even taxis, and a train that will take me from my dorm to the ocean. 
And right now, for people who are selling cars, I’m a problem. And so is the rest of my generation. I’m 18 years old and I know what I want–at least when it comes to cars. That is what is sending car companies into their own identity crisis.

This story is part of a special Youth Radio series Generation Z produced with NPR’s Sonari Glinton.

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